NUS warns of complaints rise

July 20, 2001

Estimates of a near £1 million price tag for a university ombudsman to deal with student complaints could be a gross under-estimation, student leaders warned this week.

A consultation paper on the independent review of student complaints, published this week, puts the cost of such a system at about £830,000, based on five complaints costing an average of £1,000 each, per higher education institution each year.

But the National Union of Students said that the estimate was optimistic and that complaints would be at least double that number.

Brooks Duke, NUS vice-president (education), said: "The present visitor system... makes students reluctant to pursue their cases. But if students see that there is a fair and unbiased structure in place, the floodgates will open and more people will complain."

The paper, published by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals, proposes that standard complaint forms are posted on the ombudsman website as well as being available by post. Failure to use a form would not, however, rule out the investigation of a complaint.

It also proposes that the Department for Education and Skills provides money to set up the independent-review office.

There are concerns that continued government funding would amount to imposition of a monitoring scheme, while funding from the sector raises questions of independence.

Higher education institutions are being asked for their views on four areas of the proposed scheme: what sort of complaints should be referred for review; under what circumstances should complaints be referred; what weight should the independent reviewer's decisions carry; and administrative arrangements and financing of an independent reviewer.

Universities are also being asked what powers an independent reviewer should have, including whether his or her decision should be for advice only or whether decisions should be binding.

The consultation contains questions about the range of decisions an independent reviewer should be able to make. These include ruling or recommending that no prima facie case has been established, or that the complaint was vexatious or frivolous. Another possible decision could be that an institution's internal procedures had been breached.

It has been suggested that the independent reviewer could have the power to judge if the decision reached by an institution was reasonable or unreasonable, even if all internal procedures were followed properly.

The consultation ends on October 19.

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